Laser technology will launch visitors into space at Greenwich

Last updated at 11:36 18 May 2007

Planetarium dome

Visitors really will see space, the final frontier, when the National Maritime Museum’s new

planetarium opens.

This is the first look inside the centre where the starstruck will be able to sit back and "travel" so far into outer space that the earth becomes a dot and then disappears.

In a mind-boggling description indicating the scale involved, they will be transported to the point only now being reached by the experimental radio waves transmitted by inventor Guglielmo Marconi a century ago.

The 120-seat planetarium, named after its major donor, businessman Peter Harrison, will be the

only one in London after the London Planetarium effectively shut up shop for conventional astronomy last year.

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Images inside the planetarium

The centre at Madame Tussauds now hosts a show featuring film stars and "extra-terrestrials" after the owners claimed there was a lack of interest in stars and planets.

The Greenwich museum, however, is convinced the experience offered by its £1 million laser projector will be a huge hit.

The projector was made by US defence contractor Evans & Sutherland and is only the second of its

kind in the world.

Museum director Roy Clare said: "Because of the

capacity of the laser, you can display more stars than before. You can show whole heavens."

The planetarium is at the heart of a £16million redevelopment of the museum’s Royal Observatory,

funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Millennium Commission, Lloyd’s

Register and other donors.

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Buildings once so dilapidated that water would cascade through the ceilings when it rained have

galleries telling the history of astronomy and interactive displays where visitors can learn about the effects of gravity and how a space

probe is built.

Historic instruments explain humanity’s early understanding of the planets.

Visitors will be invited to feel a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite, billed as "the oldest

thing you will ever touch".

In a special learning centre, children will be able to view the night sky by day thanks to remote telescopes in Australia and Hawaii.

Much of the planetarium is below ground level but its projection dome is clearly visible thanks

to a 45-tonne, bronze-clad roof that juts into the sky.

The structure’s geometry is based on celestial coordinates: it stands astride the Prime Meridian (zero degrees longitude) and its south side points towards the Pole Star.

Astronomers started work at Greenwich, once home of the Royal Navy, because in the 17th century the stars and planets held the key to marine navigation.

The observatory was part of the mission to determine longitude, the story told by Dava Sobel in a best-selling book.

The new Royal Observatory will be opened by the

Queen on Tuesday and will be open to the public from next Friday.

Highlights include:

• The Gibeon meteorite, which landed 4.5 billion years ago: "The oldest thing you will ever touch."

• A soundscape of music composed by Martyn Ware, formerly of Heaven 17, from the noise of pulsars, solar winds and Shuttle launches.

• Grand orrery of 1780. A mechanical model of the solar system as understood in the 18th century, with earth and only five planets.

• The burning lens and thermometers used by

William Herschel, who discovered Uranus, to detect infrared light.

• The chance to build a space probe and see whether it flies in an interactive game.

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